• Todd Mei

The Guise of the Individual Good: A Perfect Political Pandemic Storm

Updated: May 4

When watching what it is unfolding in different countries, as a philosopher it becomes irresistible to speculate on what ideologies and values might be underwriting respective responses to lockdown measures. At least in the US, much of the discussion centers on individual rights and the idea that as the person who owns his/her own body, the individual is best place to decide what to do.

(Part of my own research is in the philosophy and history of economics, and I am often perplexed at how debates about the individual versus the collective are often polemicized beyond repair. Did anyone not read Aristotle’s Politics besides me? In any event, even F. A. Hayek, who was a well-known proponent of individualism, wouldn’t have advocated a simplistic idea of the individual coming first, at least not in all circumstances.)

In this post, I consider what may be a perfect political storm in the US. The components of this storm are tendencies to believe:

  1. the individual is mostly sovereign and self-sufficient;

  2. that evidence of the above is success in one’s work;

  3. given the above, reliance on government support is a sign of weakness and can in fact run counter to individual choice and flourishing.

There are many ways these three ingredients can be traced and justified, but that is not my concern here. Instead, I want merely to point out a hypothetical situation: If the above tendencies are indeed operative, then we should pay attention to what might follow.

With the great deal of uncertainty about the timeline for easing up on lockdown measures (due mostly to how models work), it is understandable that people will look towards various sources and values to justify why it ought to be or ought not to be permissible to resume working.

In the situation that I have outlined, an ideological leaning towards individual self-sufficiency and measuring this self-sufficiency by success in work equates to adding more pressure to the idea that a population in lockdown needs to, or even has the right to, get back to work. Call this the ideological burden to work.

But there is a social mechanism involved, as well. Given the third tendency (aversion to reliance on government support), the ideological burden can lead towards a political state in which there is little development of social institutions to help in times when and where individuals cannot cope alone. Why? Well, we expect individuals to be self-sufficient by virtue of their financial success.

The principle at work here is one that informs basic insurance relations in which a group of individuals realizes they can be more resourceful and effective when dealing with risks and hazards whose occurrence is uncertain yet imminent. A more collective-minded society might consider making insurance a publicly paid and accessible good. A more individual-minded society might think that it is up to the individual to decide whether they want to partake in the insurance. So it is individually and/or privately paid. I leave it to the reader to decide if I am only talking about auto and homeowner insurance!

But let’s leave the issue of insurance to one side. I want to focus on how a skeptical belief about such a social mechanism can precipitate a certain political response to lockdown.

Here is the rub. Such skepticism leaves few options in our time of pandemic.

  • Consider that such skepticism can result in a real absence of aid for those out of work. We don’t really believe in social welfare, so let’s not really develop and support it.

  • In turn, a real absence of aid or a significant disapproval of it means that for those who need to work (most of us), the only option remains going back to work.

  • In turn, this necessity will seek to find an ideological expression, which might be something like “we ought to go back to work”; or “we have the right to work”.

Call the above the socially determined burden to work. It could have significant and disastrous effects if it leads to a premature decision to break with social distancing and thus expose more of the population to the COVID-19 virus.

Is this determination a self-fulfilling prophecy? In one sense it may be if we remain oblivious to how there is more to what is going on than simply political beliefs—that is, beliefs that we think are themselves foundational, as opposed to being driven by other factors.

In another sense it may not be. And I think this is where philosophical thinking can help out immensely. I have indicated in this post how further analyzing political beliefs may shed more light than heat.

But there is also another, very large elephant in the room. How do we understand and relate to expert knowledge (i.e. science) when we ourselves are not trained in that knowledge? Perhaps I will be successful in goading one my colleagues who works in the philosophy of science and knowledge to contribute a response!

In the meanwhile, let me just close by saying that the route of the sovereign individual is not necessarily a cul-de-sac. Its guise can perhaps be good. How? Can I repeat a phrase?

"Even F. A. Hayek", who was a prominent critic of social welfare (though he understood it differently than how the term is bandied about in the media today), thought that the strength of individualism lied in fallibilism. That is to say, we ought to have the freedom to decide for ourselves mostly because it allows us to learn through trial and error.

And who we learn from is not ourselves (as if an interminable feedback loop), but from others. And that includes members of our community as well as those with whom we disagree. . . and it concerns, of course, those who are most experienced and knowledgeable about trial and error – that is, scientific practitioners and experts.

About the Author

Dr Todd Mei is Senior Lecturer and Head of Philosophy at the University of Kent. He researches in the philosophy of work and economics and also runs the public philosophy website philosophy2U.com. He is an aspiring literary author and is a keen windsurfer and recovering rock climber.

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